By Rebecca Hale and Jennifer Kalmanson, originally published on TheHumanist.com.
Editor's note: This article was written by leaders of the American Humanist Association. While we are legally separate organization, we share a mission of promoting secular humanism and social justice. To help shape our own strategic plan, consider becoming a member and running for our board of directors. Our AGM will be coming up later this spring.
The rising tide of nonreligious people in the United States is accompanied by an intense focus on the “New Atheism,” which, rightly or wrongly, is critiqued as being not vocal enough or downright anti-progressive when it comes to social justice issues like women’s rights, racial equality, and the environment. Those familiar with the movement understand that when one declares themselves to be an “atheist,” they are simply saying that they do not believe in any gods; it doesn’t naturally imply a commitment to any particular social contract, whereas “humanist” means something additional. Atheism is what we don’t believe; humanism is what we do believe.
Humanists are cultural progressives. When you make decisions based on rationality and scientific research, with an added dose of empathy, the effective answers to the issues of our day are the progressive answers. Science-based sex education is proven to be more effective than abstinence-based sex education. A strong middle class is best for a stable, resilient economy. Health care for all extends quality of life and strengthens economies. The civil rights of all must be protected because the only justification for seeing women and racial minority groups as inferior comes from bronze-age holy books and other outdated ideas. People who support progressive ideals most often do so because they see positive results and understand cause and effect.
While atheists and humanists reject the existence of any gods for lack of evidence, atheism and humanism are not synonymous. Most atheists and humanists are good people, but atheism in and of itself is not supported by an ethical system to guide behaviour. Not all those who don’t believe in a god have fully moved past societal prejudices and old programming—and not all have cultivated empathy in a way that engenders compassion for others and builds a sense of egalitarianism.
Those who criticize the non-theist movement for not being more engaged with progressive issues may have valid points about our need to do more, but they may also be falling into the trap of thinking that all flavors of non-theist are indeed the same; that “atheist” and “humanist” are synonyms. Statistically, the majority of us are progressives who eschew bigotry, economic injustice and unbridled destruction of the environment. The majority of atheists and other non-theists hold humanist values even if they don’t use that word to self-identify. Those non-theists who don’t embrace humanist values are often the noisy voices of the few within the larger community.
Humanists are doing their share of “good,” we just aren’t often visible. We look the same as everyone else. Over the decades those of us who fit the secular “progressive activist” label have joined, contributed to, and worked within the organizations that focus on each of our particular interests: the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the National Organization for Women, the National Council of La Raza, the Human Rights Campaign, Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood, and many more. We participate in peace rallies, gay pride parades, and civil rights marches. We join protests like Occupy Wall Street. The list goes on. We are there doing the work but may be unseen, unrecognized for our secularism, for our humanism.
We ask those writers who claim non-theists aren’t doing enough in these areas to first recognize that we are almost always there—we just do it in the camouflage of the crowd, which is incorrectly presumed by these writers to be solely people of faith. Humanist contributions frequently go ignored.
Our next step as a movement, especially within the American Humanist Association (AHA) is to achieve acceptance, which can be an uphill battle in face of historical discrimination against non-theists. For example, a few years ago the Stiefel Freethought Foundation wanted to make a substantial donation to the American Cancer Society. Those humanist funds were apparently rejected because the American Cancer Society did not want to be associated with “atheists.” Somehow it’s seen as a threat if we receive recognition as contributors to good deeds and humanitarian efforts. It’s a challenge to some peoples’ faith when we demonstrate that you can be good without a god, showing that god is unnecessary to being a good person. Believe if you want to, but it’s not a requirement for goodness, just as being a believer is not a guarantee of good behaviour.
Our culture needs a greater recognition of humanism and the role humanism plays within the non-theist movement. The American Humanist Association defines humanism as follows:
Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.
Unpacking that statement a bit, several points become evident, not just about what humanists don’t believe, but what we do believe. Humanists hold progressive views about society and daily living. Humanists don’t believe in gods. Humanists believe that humans are capable of living meaningful, ethical lives. Humanists believe in our human power to change the world for the better. We also believe in our responsibility to use the abilities we have for the betterment of ourselves and our world.
When writers and thinkers began discussing the “New Atheism” as an alternative to existing establishments, the focus was on rejecting religious belief, criticizing irrational thinking, and debunking outrageous claims. What was sometimes lost was a sense of why it’s important to do these things: magical thinking writ large impairs a community from its best thinking. Standards for ethical behaviour were too often absent from much of the dialogue within New Atheism. The rights of those historically subjugated and the moral standards for interpersonal behaviour were left to individual conscience.
The American Humanist Association’s humanism is an alternative, re-energized for achieving social justice and renewed in our passion for every person’s right to self-actualization and dignity. The focus of the recent strategic planning efforts undertaken by the American Humanist Association Board of Directors isn’t on telling the world the positive things we believe, but on showing it through our actions and through our achievements.
While we’ll never stand silent in the face of threats to the rights of non-theists to articulate our views freely, as a movement we are reaching the critical mass where we can now accompany our historical individual activism with organizational action. By working hand-in-hand to improve the lives of our fellow humans, and by actively working to increase the dignity with which the least of us can live, we strive for a society in which humanist views are widely available and publicly respected. New Atheists are great at exposing more people to the idea that living without a god is possible. It’s up to us humanists and our allies to make sure that we create a desirable, fair, and just world to live in.
Rebecca Hale is president of the American Humanist Association. Jennifer Kalmanson is vice president and strategic planning chair of the American Humanist Association.